He Wanted to say, “My Father” Out Loud

Quick comment on parashat Va-yigash

How I treasure the memory of my yearlong study of the Joseph story with the amazing Nehama Leibowitz, of blessed memory, in Jerusalem.
Each week she masterfully held a room of 60 people in the palm of her hand, and engaged us every minute we were in her classroom.

In discussing this week’s portion she asked, ”Why does Joseph say, ‘Is my father still alive?’” (Or if you like the modern translations, which in this case I do not, “Is my father still well?”) After all he had just heard Judah say that his father was indeed alive.

Among the many answers proffered to her query, one has stayed in my mind these 44 years. A young Japanese man on the other side of the room responded in a way that Professor Leibowitz exclaimed that she had never heard before in her long teaching career and which she loved: “He wanted to say the words, ‘my father’ out loud.”

Wow! When we had that particular lesson, I had just returned to Jerusalem from a month-long trip back to the states to bury and mourn my father.

This past November on Kristallnacht I had the privilege of delivering three speeches, in Leipzig, Germany, the city where my father was arrested and abused on that fateful night in 1938. (See those blog posts at http://www.rabbifuchs.com),

Everything Joseph did, he did not for revenge but to see if his brothers had changed from the men who callously sold him as a slave years ago. When Judah–the perpetrator of Joseph’s sale–offers to exchange himself for his brother Benjamin, Joseph knows what he needs to know. He ends his charade and reveals himself to his brothers and forgives them. He can now say the precious words out loud: ”My father!” Those words were precious to Joseph thousands of years ago. They are precious to me today.

My Vote for The Greatest Speech Ever

An End to The Charade

The entire story of Joseph builds toward the moment when Joseph–so moved by Judah’s stirring appeal–reveals himself to his brothers. (Genesis 44:18-34)

“It is one of the greatest, most stirring addresses in all literature.” That is how my eighth grade religious school teacher, Mr. Joseph Ehrenworth, z”l, described Judah’s address to Joseph. Thank you, Mr. Ehrenworth. I know I was not a serious student in your class, but your explication of Judah’s speech has stayed with me my entire life. I did not realize it then, but you set in motion the process that inspired me to make the search for meaning in biblical narratives a driving force in my life.

Sir Walter Scott called Judah’s speech, “the most complete pattern of genuine natural eloquence extant in any language” (Joseph Hertz, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, P. 169).

We wonder though, why does Joseph treat his brothers so harshly? Why does he accuse them of being spies? Why does he demand Benjamin’s presence in Egypt, and why does he instruct his steward to put his goblet into Benjamin’s bag?

Many commentators suggest that Joseph’s sought revenge. The brothers mistreated Joseph and sold him as a slave, and so now Joseph is paying them back. Even W. Gunther Plaut, z’l, in his masterful Torah commentary suggests revenge as one of Joseph’s motives. Plaut writes that at first and understandably, “Joseph thought of revenge. He still wants revenge more than he wants love” (The Torah, A Modern Commentary, p. 284). However, if revenge was Joseph’s goal, he could have exacted it without disguise, without delay, and without bringing the untold anguish upon his father that Benjamin’s journey to Egypt caused.

No, revenge was not Joseph’s motive. Joseph acted as he did for only one reason: He wanted to see if his brothers had changed.

Years before, Joseph had been their father’s favorite. He tattled on them, he bragged about his dreams, and he proudly wore the famous “coat of many colors” that their father gave to Joseph and Joseph alone. As a result, Joseph’s brothers hated him and sold him into slavery.

With Joseph gone, Benjamin, the only other child of Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel, became Jacob’s favorite. By putting his cup into Benjamin’s sack, Joseph places Benjamin in a position whereby he too might become a slave in Egypt, and Jacob would once again lose his favorite son.

Judah knows what is at stake. If Benjamin does not return home safely, his father will die. This time Judah, who so callously inflicted the pain of the loss of Joseph on his father, will not let it happen again. In his speech, the longest one to one address in the Bible, he offers himself as a substitute for Benjamin.

That is all Joseph–who has already had to leave the room twice in his meetings with his brothers to avoid breaking down and weeping in their presence–needs to hear to end the charade.

Our tradition calls a person who repents for his or her sins a ba’al or ba’alat teshuvah (literally, a “master of repentance”). The Jewish tradition accords even a greater honor to a person who commits a particular transgression but later, when he or she is put in a similar position, turns away from the same kind of wrongdoing. That person is a ba’al teshuvah shelemah (a “master of complete repentance”). This is the lofty designation Judah earns for his actions in Joseph’s presence. [See Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Sefer Bereshit, pp. 327-328 (Hebrew edition), pp. 460-461 (English edition)].

Judah is now a true hero, worthy to emerge as the progenitor of Israel’s most enduring tribe. We can be proud that the words “Jew” and “Judaism” derive from his name. More important, Judah’s example of repentance can inspire us to examine our own actions and help us to turn away from transgressions we have committed in the past and live more positive, purposeful lives in the future.

I am deeply grateful for my studies with Professor Leibowitz in Jerusalem during the 1970-1971 academic year, which helped me develop the outlook I have shared in this commentary.

How Quickly We Forget What We Should Remember Most

Quick comment on Torah portion Miketz and the Story of Joseph

While in the dungeon, Joseph interpreted the cupbearer’s dream, and told him that he would soon be released and restored to his post.

Remember me to Pharaoh, Joseph begged the cupbearer, because I was framed and don’t deserve to be here. (Genesis 40:14-15)

“Sure,” I would imagine the cupbearer answered, “No prob!”
But the cupbearer forgot about Joseph. (Genesis 40:23)

Later, when it could serve his purpose, he recalled and told Pharaoh.
There is this Hebrew in the dungeon who knows how to interpret dreams. (Genesis 41:9-12)

This minor incident in the Joseph story offers a wonderful look at human behavior. We quickly forget the kindness others do for us. But oh how we nurture our grudges!

Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

Shouldn’t we savor, recall, recount and try to repay every act of “Hesed” (the biblical word for loyalty and loving kindness) that people do for us?

And should we not program our memories to filter out more quickly the pain of insult and slight?

Should we not be as eager to be gracious to those on the lower edge of society as those in a position to help us?

May the lights of Shabbat and of Chanukah add light and warmth to our lives and encourage us to bring light and warmth to others!

Guest Blog: Introducing Ursula

My readers by now all know of the amazing German Pastor Ursula Sieg. She arranged all of the details and logistics of the wonderful ten weeks Vickie and I recently spent in Germany. She and her husband Pastor Martin Pommerening hosted us in their home, saw to our schedule and made sure we got to every place we had to be. Ursula also conceived and curated an amazing exhibit about Vickie’s mother, Stefanie Steinberg, a 93-year old artist who fled Nazi Germany as a child, for the benefit of students in the Holstenschule in Neumünster. Vickie and I are more grateful than we can express for their friendship and everything they did for us.

In addition to her off-the-chart administrative and organizational skills, Pastor Sieg is also an ardent student of the Hebrew Bible and a person who thinks deeply and critically about issues of religious thought. Because she has been such a source of light to Vickie and me, it is a pleasure to welcome her as Guest Blogger as we prepare to welcome, the Feast of Chanukah, our Festival of Lights!

The Visiting God
By Ursula Sieg

Although Stephen and Vickie’s visit was enriching for many in the German area of Holstein, Martin and I felt it was the most enriching for us since we had the privilege of hosting Vickie and Stephen in our home for ten weeks. I would like to share here some pieces of the treasure they left with us.

On one Sunday Martin and I, both Lutheran pastors, and Stephen had to give sermons in different churches on the same text from Exodus 34. So we decided to have a Torah study on Shabbat morning, as we loved to do when we visited Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford.

Verses 6 and 7 contain key words in the Bible, which remain a burden for many Christians after the Nazi era, World War II and the Shoah. It is all about God’s mercy until we read that God punishes sinners for three or four generations. That is the popular understanding of these verses. And it is true. What our parents, grandparents and grand grandparents did and experienced in that time is still haunting us, and it does not make a difference if our ancestors were victims suffering the cruelty of Nazi perpetrators or if they acted out Nazi policies. Both victims and perpetrators and the descendants of both continue to struggle. Many don’t really know why they struggle so. But we in Germany do know that we are still dealing with this heritage. And professionals in psychology confirm that the words in Exodus are valid: Yes, it lasts until the fourth generation.

Stephen contributed a very helpful and moving rabbinic teaching about 34:1: Moses is carrying two new tablets to the mountaintop that he, not God, had to hew from the rock. Please read it in his blog (www.rabbifuchs.com) posting “The Church of the Broken Cross” (www.rabbifuchs.com, click on Blog). I’ll trace another line.

In his famous German language Bible edition Martin Luther translated the Hebrew word, “pakad” as “heimsuchen,” which literally means, “visiting home”. It could be a comforting word that means, “visiting somebody to bring him or her home.” But in German it became a synonym for punishment in a very hard way. “Heimsuchung” is a catastrophe to which nobody can respond.

But Martin Luther’s translation is very close to the Hebrew word (For those who not know: Lutheran Pastors in Germany are mandated to learn Bible-Hebrew for their study) “pakad“. Looking at some of the 301 places in the Hebrew bible using “pakad” the basic meaning is “visiting to learn how one is doing”. The visitor is a person in charge, a father looking at his children, a businessperson looking at the work of the employees, a king looking around in his kingdom. It is not only a nice visit for a coffee. It is a visit with consequences. Punishment is only one possible consequence. Other consequences could be a praise for good work, encouragement for difficult tasks, instruction and teaching, comfort in affliction, appointing somebody for a position after finding him or her worth it, fulfillment of a former promise, help if needed. God decided to liberate the Israelite people from Egypt after visiting them and seeing how badly they are treated. The visit could also be like one an envoy makes. An example is how Jesse sends David to see how his brothers are doing as soldiers in Saul’s troops against the Philistines.

The popular understanding of verse 7 “God is punishing the children and grandchildren for the sins of the fathers” is wrong. It comes from a misunderstanding of Luther’s word “Heimsuchen“. The right understanding is “God pays attention to the children, grandchildren, to everybody in the first, second third or fourth line related to the person doing evil.” God is visiting them to see how they are doing; how they are dealing with the impact of the sin that important persons committed.

I found a very helpful commentary that explained: At that time four generations lived together in one house, in one place. A wrongdoing affected them all directly. They could become victims of it, suffering because of the sin of their parents or relatives or they could learn by their example … However, they have to deal with the sin of their ancestors. But when children become adults, it is up to them to either stop doing it or continue to practice it, fight against the wrongdoing or defend it, to mourn and offer compensation for it or increase it, seek to learn the lessons of the past or remain lost in cluelessness…

God is visiting to see how we are doing and what is needed. It is different for each person. It is comfort and support, it is teaching and fostering, it is charge and punishment, and it is praise and new tasks. These actions are determined by God’s character. The visiting God introduces him/herself in verse 6 as compassionate and friendly, slow to anger, full of mercy and faith. God’s intention is not striving for power and wealth and not revenge or hate. God’s intention is our understanding of “Shalom” — as Stephen would say -– “a just, caring and compassionate society.”

Stephen and Vickie’s visit was a visit like this. When Stephan Block, Propst in Neumünster, showed Stephen and Vickie the Anschar Church, he told the story of Pastor Ernst Szymanowski-Biberstein. He was pastor in Kaltenkirchen around 1930 and an avid Nazi. He moved to Neumünster and was Propst (a leading pastor) there, than moved as Propst to Bad Segeberg, than he left the church and participated in WWII committing mass murder. Most of his victims were Jews. He was tried and sentenced to death at Nuremberg, but the church asked for mercy and his sentence was changed to life in prison. After a few years he was set free and worked for a short time in a church office.

I knew the story, but in this moment I shuddered because each day I drove Stephen and Vickie between Bad Segeberg, Neumünster, Kiel and Kaltenkirchen, where this pastor who did such evil lived and worked and got support from leaders of the church. Stephen and Vickie encountered his successors and saw how they deal with this heritage.

Of course those who still harbor Nazi ideology or resentments towards Jews did not attend the events with Vickie and Stephen. Whether they felt it or not they are punished by not getting to know this amazing couple. For everybody else it was comforting, strengthening and encouraging to hear messages offering deeper knowledge, understanding and wisdom. They let us feel God’s compassion and mercy.

I also felt pain and repentance because I saw that Vickie and Stephen were suffering and mourning at the memorials of lost synagogues. I felt their sadness when they encountered the small and struggling Reform Jewish communities in the country that was the rich center of Reform Judaism until 1933. And I felt their pain when they told of their parents’ hardship and losses caused by our ancestors. It pained my conscience to feel that they are suffering because of the Holocaust. Vickie and Stephen’s visit was not just for a coffee. They did not avoid the horrors of the past, but they encouraged us through their presence to do better. Every thing that they did and said was hugged by compassion, love and forgiveness. Thinking back to Vickie and Stephen’s visit helps me to understand the visiting God.

For me the birth of Jesus, which we Christians celebrate these days, is also a visit reenacting Exodus 34:7. Looking at Jesus from God’s self-introduction in Exodus 34 might shed new light on the Gospel.

And we, are we visitors like God is, or like those God would send as envoys to those who have to deal with a burden from their ancestors? A comment from Stephen to verse 6 was: “We are encouraged to be like God, compassionate and friendly, slow to anger, full of mercy and faith.” A visitor like this is always a Messiah.

Happy Chanukah to my Jewish readers and Merry Christmas to those who celebrate with me.

 Pastorin Ursula Sieg in the Sukkah with her husband, Pastor Martin Pommerening and Vickie .  Martin and Ursula built the Sukkah of us in their backyard in Bad Segeberg
Pastorin Ursula Sieg in the Sukkah with her husband, Pastor Martin Pommerening and Vickie. Martin and Ursula built the Sukkah for us in their backyard in Bad Segeberg

Finding Ourselves in the Story of Joseph

When I study or teach Torah, the truly important question I ask is: Where are we in the text? What does this story teach us that can help us to live more meaningful lives and become better representatives of the Divine Image in which the Almighty created us?

Miketz, the second of four weekly portions which tell the epic story of Joseph and his brothers, chronicles two of the most amazing turnarounds in all literature.

The rise of Joseph from imprisoned slave to second in command to Pharaoh in Egypt is the more familiar of the two. One minute Joseph was in jail for a crime he did not commit. Suddenly, servants shave him, give him fresh clothes and whisk him into the presence of Pharaoh to interpret the monarch’s dreams. But Joseph did more than interpret. He seized the opportunity before him and offered Pharaoh advice as to how he should handle the economic crisis that loomed in Egypt’s future! What chutzpah! What courage! Almost in an instant Joseph became Pharaoh’s chief economic adviser and began to ride in Egypt’s Chariot Number Two!

What a meteoric rise from the lowest depths to the highest heights, but where are we in the text? Hopefully, like Joseph, we see and seize the special opportunities that present themselves to use our talents to make life better for others in some way.

The second turnaround is less overtly dramatic but every bit as remarkable as the rise of Joseph from slave to court Jew. It concerns Joseph’s older half brother Judah. To understand the lesson that begins in this week’s portion and reaches its climax next week is to understand why we carry his name and called ourselves Jews as opposed to Naphtaleans or Danites or the name of some other tribal head.

Judah is the brother responsible for selling Joseph away as a slave and bringing immeasurable grief upon his father. The Judah we meet in this week’s sedrah is very different from the person who years earlier convinced his brother’s to sell Joseph as a slave, bloody his special coat and bring it to their father so that Jacob would think that a wild beast had torn him apart. Like his father Jacob before him Judah has grown through the negative experiences of his life.

In fact in Genesis, chapter 38, the Torah interrupts the flow of the Joseph story to illustrate one of Judah’s formative lessons. His daughter in law Tamar, one of the Bible’s most underrated heroes, taught him about integrity and dramatically impressed upon him the impact of his actions upon others. This incident is just one of many biblical examples of a woman playing an indispensable role in a man’s world rise to eventual covenantal greatness. To his credit, Judah has learned his lesson well.

In our portion, famine grips the land like a vise. The food from the brothers’ first buying trip to the grain centers of Egypt is exhausted. The vizier of the land, whom the brothers did not know was their brother Joseph, made it crystal clear that only if their youngest brother Benjamin is with them could they buy more food. It is Judah, alone among his brothers, who realizes that there is no choice. Despite Jacob’s reluctance to send him, Benjamin must go down to Egypt. Judah, once the instigator of a heinous crime, now becomes the responsible son determined to save his family from famine. He calmly but clearly forces Jacob to face the gravity of their situation, pledges personal responsibility for Benjamin to his father and exclaims: “If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, I shall stand guilty before you forever.” (Genesis 43:9)

In next week’s portion we see that Judah is as good as his word! He is willing to remain a slave in Egypt so that Benjamin can return to his father!

So, where are we in the text of Parashat Miketz? Hopefully, we shall aspire to stand in the shoes of Joseph and Judah! Hopefully we shall courageously seize the opportunities before us to make a positive difference! Hopefully, too, we shall learn through our misdeeds to become more just, caring and compassionate partners with the Eternal One in the creation of a better world!

Tamar and Judah: Savvy Woman, Clueless Man

Semester Opening lecture at University of Potsdam School of Jewish Theology during which I point out that  my book tells of several times in Genesis and Exodus when women get it and men are clueless.
Semester Opening lecture at University of Potsdam School of Jewish Theology during which I point out that my book tells of several times in Genesis and Exodus when women get it and men are clueless.
In my book, What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives (http://www.amazon.com/Whats-Finding-Ourselves-Biblical-Narratives/dp/1427655014/ref=tmm_pap_title_0) I point out that so often in the Bible—beginning with Eve—it is the woman who gets it and the man who is clueless!

There is no better example of this than Judah and Tamar. Although her “air time” in the text is short, Tamar plays a pivotal role in one of Genesis’ most amazing character transformations.
We meet Judah as Joseph’s conniving and greedy older brother. When the brothers scheme to kill their younger brother Joseph, Judah, says, “What profit is there in that? Let’s sell him as a slave instead! (Genesis 37:26-27)”

But when the Joseph story reaches its climax, the man who callously sold his brother as a slave has repented so thoroughly of his horrible deed, that he is now willing to remain a slave to Joseph so that his younger brother Benjamin can go free. (Genesis 44:18-34)

What transformed Judah? It is important to note the chief biblical catalyst for Judah’s metamorphosis was his daughter-in- law, Tamar. Tamar was the wife of Judah’s late, eldest son, Er. According to the custom of levirate marriage (a childless widow would marry her husband’s brother and bear a child in his name), Tamar married Er’s brother, Onan. When he also died, Judah feared the same fate would befall his third son, Shelah. In a misguided effort to save his son’s life, Judah broke his promise and did not give Tamar to Shelah in marriage. Instead, Judah sent Tamar to live as a widow in her father’s home.

Sometime later, after Judah’s own wife dies, and Tamar realized that Judah has allowed her to languish in widowhood; Tamar acted with great courage and resolve. She disguised herself as a prostitute and tempted Judah to have relations with her. As a result, she became pregnant.
When he learned that Tamar was pregnant, Judah was incensed. Yet, when she showed him proof that Judah himself had impregnated her, he was forced to admit, “She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah” (Genesis 38:26).
Although she does not gain a full measure of justice, Tamar refused to be a passive victim of the system, as it then existed. She showed fortitude and courage. She was willing to risk the consequences in order to stand against injustice. Sharon Pace Jeansonne wrote: “Dissatisfaction can either paralyze people or encourage them to fight for what is rightfully theirs. Tamar, fueled by her own resolve to struggle for what she believed in, never gave up” [Sharon Pace Jeansonne, The Women of Genesis: From Sarah to Potiphar’s Wife (Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress, 1990), 106].

Tamar’s courage not only earned her the offspring she craved, but it also transformed Judah from villain to a hero so worthy that our people bear his name.

The sensitivity and empathy that Judah learned at “The Yeshiva of Tamar” enabled him to change the course of biblical history. Only when we learn to change, repent and try to repair our wrongdoings as Judah did do we become worthy practitioners of “Judah-ism.”

Huffington Post Review: What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives

Guest blogger: Michael Berkowitz

Semester Opening lecture at University of Potsdam School of Jewish Theology
Semester Opening lecture at University of Potsdam School of Jewish Theology

The symbolic fight over religion has spilled from the churches to the schools, public meetings, market place and even into the cinema. Superstition seems at high tide. Everyone knows how their imaginary friend “God” would support their causes.

Movies like Heaven is Real, Son of God, and God is Not Dead trumpet the triumph of Christian religion. The United States Supreme Court rolls back Constitutional separation of church and state. Evangelicals mob the media suffusing daily life with a constant diet of rigid Jeremiahs, condemning social change and critical thinking.

Against this backdrop, it was a joy to encounter Rabbi Stephen Fuchs’ What’s in it for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives. Rabbi Fuchs has given us a refreshing, practical application of how biblical stories may help us deal with the 21st Century. Fuchs goes beyond the literalists battle over truth and historicity to mine these legends for the purpose that more enlightened elders used them: to help organize and inform daily life.

Rabbi Fuchs employs the biblical stories with wisdom, compassion and even humor to gently prod us along a path to better life. More than most contemporaries, he has grasped the essence of faith as a life affirming way to achieve social change. In bright, crisp, direct prose, Rabbi Fuchs shows how such belief may “make the world a better place.” As he says, “The biblical narratives I elucidate relate to this central idea. These narratives can enrich all of our lives whether we see ourselves as religious or not.”

The chapters refreshingly confront us with the issues from these timeless stories: “Eden: Would You Want to Live There?” “Joseph: A Model for Change,” “Slavery: Sensitized for Suffering,” “Six Women Heroes: Where Would We Be Without Them,” “Moses: He Answered the Call to Conscience: Will We?” Fuchs even deals with the issue of non-belief without patronizing or denigrating the non-believers. In his chapter, “What If I Don’t Believe in God?” he reiterates the biblical message that meritorious action is more important even than belief.

Clearly and precisely, this good book goes right to the actual purpose of the older Good Book, making it a useful tool in our lives. Rabbi Fuchs has done us a great service by his thoughtful interpretation and action-oriented guide to the morality of social change.

Anti-Semitism: Something We Try to Keep in Check But Can’t Seem to CURE

Me speaking on Kristallnacht , November 9, 2014 at the site in Leipzig where the great synagogue stood before it was burned to the ground by the Nazis on November 9, 1938
 Me  speaking on Kristallnacht , November 9, 2014 at the site in Leipzig where the great synagogue stood before it was burned to the ground by the Nazis on November 9, 1938

My thoughts as I prepare to speak at Shabbat services at Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield, NJ, in Commemoration of the Shoah. Many thanks to Rabbi Renee Edelman for the invitation 

In Leviticus chapter 10 there is a chilling scene: While Aaron was celebrating his investiture as High Priest of Israel, his two older sons, Nadav and Abihu lay dead before him. Just as Jews in Germany and the rest of Europe enjoyed unprecedented economic and social success, Hitler rose to power and suddenly–within twelve years–European Jewry was no more.

Just as the Biblical text tells us that Aaron was silent in the face of the tragedy, so too, the Jewish world was all but silent about the Holocaust for more than 30 years. The enormity of the tragedy belied any attempt to explain, analyze or understand it.

To articulate the horror was to relive it!

In the biblical text, though, once Aaron had washed off the anointing oil, and the bodies were outside the precinct of the tent of meeting, the Israelites accepted God’s command to publicly mourn the slain boys.

Our experience with the Holocaust again parallels the Bible. With the passage of time the Jewish community has been able to mourn. Moreover, we have sealed in our collective memory the Holocaust’s enormous reality.

So we commemorate it, we build memorials, we build museums, and we conduct programs and rituals of various types. In so doing we try to make sense of the inexplicable.

More than 70 years after the end of World War II survivors are rapidly dying off, and our urgency to remember grows. Pseudo-historians challenge the Holocaust’s validity while we Jews continue to think of each of our children in the words of Zechariah, as “A brand plucked from the fire.” (Zechariah 3;2)

Jews have achieved much since the end of World War II. We are comfortable for the most part, and except in the Arab world, there is no official anti-Semitism anywhere.

But anti-Semitism is a chronic disease!

We can try to keep it in check, but we cannot cure it. Today it is once again on the rise in many parts of Europe. And if it seems to some that we are a bit too sensitive about it, I would rather be too sensitive than oblivious to a force which history proves can rise up to engulf us. We dare not forget that Hitler was the butt of beer hall jokes in the late 20’s. By 1933 he was the Chancellor of all Germany.

In every country where Jews have lived–since we entered Egypt as protected relatives of the Pharaoh’s advisor Joseph–to the present day, our fortunes have been subject to change.

Our protected status in Egypt gave way to slavery and oppression. England, France, Spain, Portugal, Poland–just about every country where we have ever lived–has expelled us from its borders. So if we seem a bit too quick to react to anti-Jewish messages, we trust and hope our friends will understand.

There is a famous Hasidic story of an enthusiastic disciple, who exclaimed to his beloved Rabbi, “My Master, I love you.”

“You say you love me,” the Rabbi replied. “Do you know what hurts me?”
“But Master,” the student responded, “how can I know what hurts you?’

“If you do not know what hurts me,” the Rabbi concluded, “you cannot love me.”

What hurts me? The failure or refusal by so many to acknowledge the reality of history’s lessons and the danger of anti-Semitism today hurt me very much.

The renowned Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim, of blessed memory, said it best. For nearly 2000 years the classical Christian message was that Christianity was the only valid religion, and that Judaism was an illegitimate faith.

Because of that belief, Christian governments told Jews in place after place, “You cannot live here as Jews.” And in country after country Christian authorities forced us to convert.

Time went on, and often the message became,“You cannot live here.” And Christian and Muslim authorities expelled us from their lands.

Hitler took the message a step further:

Continue reading “Anti-Semitism: Something We Try to Keep in Check But Can’t Seem to CURE”

Chanukah: Beyond the Cruse of Oil

Chanukah is coming soon, and it brings with it a vital message for today. I was fortunate to spend considerable time in Germany this past fall and in Italy in the fall of 2013. Because I observed and served small, struggling but determined-to-thrive Jewish communities in those places, I appreciate the real meaning of the Festival of Lights more than ever before. I dedicate this essay in particular to the fortitude of those two Jewish communities. The first is Beth Shalom Milano that strives to maintain a viable Reform Jewish presence amid a sea of assimilation on the one hand and a hostile Orthodox presence on the other. The second is the Jüdische Gemeinde in Kiel who offer a warm welcoming Jewish home to a diverse group of people seeking an authentic connection to Jewish life.

For all my years as a rabbi I have tried to teach in every venue at my disposal – pulpit, classroom, office, anywhere I can – that the Festival of Chanukah is not really about a cruse of oil that lasted for eight days. Oh, it is a wonderful legend, but it is about as central to the real meaning of Chanukah as Santa Claus is the reason our Christian neighbors celebrate Christmas.

The real story of Chanukah is long and complex, but here is its essence, and the vital lesson it can teach us today. Long ago in Judaea (about 165 BCE), it was a time of peace and prosperity. The Assyrian Greeks and their King Antiochus ruled over Judea, but they were content to leave the Jews alone as long as they paid their taxes and there was peace in the streets.

At this time there were basically two types of Jews living in Judaea. There were Jews who were loyal to their religion and to our Covenant with God. They understood that God had called Abraham and Sarah and their descendants (who included them and us today) to

1. Be a blessing
2. Follow God’s teachings and live worthy lives
3. Use their talents to create a society built on justice and righteousness.

These Jews believed that if they did these things, then in return, God would:

1. Protect them
2. Give them children
3. Make them a permanent people
4. Keep them safe in their ancient land, the land then known as Judaea

But there was another group of Jews at that time as well. Most of them were wealthy and thought it would be to their advantage if they were more like the Greeks. They thought their Jewish customs and religious celebrations made it harder to have good relationships and make profitable business relationships with wealthy Greek businessmen.

In order to accomplish this goal, this second group of Jews stopped practicing their religion and even mocked our sacred traditions. They wanted to see Judaea become a Greek city-state. If that happened Judaea could coin its own money, which would be a great advantage in business. So instead of studying Torah, observing Holy Days and Festivals, and living Jewish lives, they hung out in the Greek gymnasia where they could make lots of good business contacts.

To make a very long story shorter there was so much tension between these two groups of Jews that soon they started fighting with each other. Then and only then–when he saw that there was violence in the streets of Judaea–did Antiochus send in his troops. He outlawed all Jewish practice and polluted the Temple with idols of Greek gods, and offered sacrifice of pigs (a forbidden animal for Jews) to them.

The Maccabees fought against the Assyrian–Greeks for three years and finally drove the foreign troops out of Judaea. They fought for the first time in history for the cause of religious liberty. And they won!

The lesson, though, is an important one for today. Judaism is a use it or lose it commodity. When we take our Judaism for granted, when we neglect to study and practice it, we endanger its survival. That is the real lesson of Chanukah. May we celebrate the Festival of Lights with joy and pride in our precious heritage!